‘I am stretched to brittle’: How to throw out the to-do lists and just be

Does your hardest taskmaster live inside your head? After a year of striving, exertion and flying headlong towards burn-out, Vee Sey frees herself from the mental prison of her own design

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'I am stretched to brittle': How to throw out the to-do lists and just be

A light-footed lark ready to conduct the dawn chorus myself, I wake at 5.30am and seize the day! I make a decaf because, you know, journal morning pages to inspire creativity of the highest calibre, then head out for my pre-work run. I must go further than yesterday because I have a target and I cannot fall behind. I do it, plus a kilometre. I stumble indoors, mottled from the chill. I have a scalding scrub – no bubbles, no time – and let my hair dry into my jumper because there isn’t a spare moment for preening… Before I start rat-a-tat-tatting on my keyboard with hard intention and supreme focus as the busy workday begins. 

Lunchtime o’clock sharp, after gulping down two slabs of toast with peanut butter and banana – because I must exceed my five-a-day, some say 10 – is mindful walking for 60 minutes along the soothing riverbank to bring me peace and a clear head, fewer quandaries and more solutions. I see a dainty robin redbreast and wonder if he is a Scandinavian holidaymaker for a nanosecond… Lucky him. I rush past mute swans gliding, stretching, turning languidly… I dart into the supermarket to get fresh vegetables for dinner, which I always make from scratch. The mallards, I think, have left for a more hospitable place…

Downtime is listening to self-improvement, spiritual fulfilment and healthy living podcasts or reading books about how to run faster, achieve greater, get happier, be more. I am a wide-eyed owl devoid of wisdom. That light-hearted murder mystery my friend gave me is too dusty to touch. I really must clean in here. My phone buzzes relentlessly because I overcommunicate on text, email and call. I give it, them, my all. I work. I bring the worms. I’m just a girl who can’t say no, so I take on a project to do at weekends. I do my best every time, all the time. Aren’t I marvellous?

I do not feel marvellous. My body and mind are weary. It’s been an interminable year and I have been pushing myself for most of it. I am stretched to brittle, and I know I am not the only one. I spot you in the mornings, checking your speed and time. I see you in the shop, wildly grabbing items while planning something life-and-death urgent on the phone. Multitasking. I watch you online, amending files at a frenetic pace and always replying swiftly to my never-ending double checks. I am sorry about those. 

On morning gallop-plus-plus, out of the frosty blue, I come to an abrupt halt and begin to cry. If I could sink to my knees like a defeated Rocky without causing upset, embarrassment and an unnecessary ambulance call by a passerby, I would. The wall they say you hit is touching my nose. The inflexible day goes on and by 9pm I can barely shuffle. As I make a cup of tea, I spill boiling water on my thumb. ‘You stupid b****! Look what you did!’ shrieks a hostile voice. She is me. Being horrible to myself. Always cracking her whip.

My message to you and me is this: Please stop. Your perfectionism and slave-driving cannot go on. Look after yourself. Allow a protective wing across your overburdened shoulders. If you don’t have someone to offer you one, nurture yourself. That is what is pressing. Ease into a morning and see how it evolves unscheduled. Linger over something pleasurable just for you. Read for entertainment because enlightenment doesn’t come in a flash. Batch-cook so you don’t have to do it on repeat. Stroll free, don’t run. You don’t have to exert yourself to full capacity every waking moment. Have fewer waking moments. 

We talk of slowing down and self-compassion so knowingly, but what do they mean? Release that breath you are holding and stop trying so hard. You are doing a brilliant job and it’s time to rest. And, conscientious and well-meaning little bird, there is never, ever, any reason to speak to yourself that way.

Words: Vee Sey

Photograph: Getty Images